By SAM TERRY
Jobe Publishing Inc.
This Saturday will mark the 137th annual Fancy Farm Picnic, long considered the most important political event in Kentucky. Sponsored by St. Jerome Catholic Church, the event could be likened to
the political version of the Kentucky Derby, replacing horses with politicians who parade through the thousands of attendees before having their chance to either convince, befuddle, or at least entertain the crowd. Unlike the famous horse race, there is no definite winner but those in attendance typically share their opinions about which speaker won, placed, or showed.
The first Fancy Farm Picnic dates to 1880 and was held near the creek that meanders near the tiny hamlet in Graves County in far western Kentucky. The Mayfield Messenger of July 31 that year announced the parish’s summertime get-together, stating, “There will be a barn dance, picnic, and a ‘gander pulling’ at Fancy Farm next Thursday. Those who have never seen the latter should turn out on this occasion. It will be interesting.”
The event was initially held near a local creek meandering through Fancy Farm, a site chosen for its broad shade, clear water, and comfortable atmosphere. Past accounts of the event note a wide variety of activities that included horseshoes, baseball played with sturdy sticks and a rag ball, and booths staffed by various families where children of all ages could test their skills. Taking a break from the fun, lemonade stands stood ready to provide a tart refreshment. There were dozens of old-fashioned, hand-cranked ice cream freezers covered with quilts and tarpaulins keep the tasty treat cold until it was served. The women of the parish cooked a virtual smorgasbord of homegrown vegetables and early in the morning of the day of the event killed, plucked, and fried chickens. The men weren’t exempt from food preparation, however, as they killed and dressed sheep and goats that were roasted over a pit for some 24 hours assuring that it was fork-tender before being slathered with a mouthwatering sauce.
At least the first fifty years of the picnic’s existence was without the now-traditional speech-making and barb-throwing even though political candidates took advantage of the sizeable crowd. The earliest events were typically held during the last week of July making the event ideal for shaking hands with voters who would be going to the polls for the primary election in early August. In 1956, Kentucky changed its run-off elections to May and giving a nod to the public workforce, organizers decided to adopt the first Saturday of August as the annual date.
At the 1931 event, A.B. “Happy” Chandler was a candidate for Lt. Governor and attended the Fancy Farm event. In a 1980 interview with Bill Bartleman of The Paducah Sun, Chandler said “I guess I was one of the first candidates for statewide office to ever go to Fancy Farm. I ended my campaign for Lt. Governor down there. I won that election and thought Fancy Farm was good luck, so I kept going back.”
Among Chandler’s recollections was dancing with his wife, Mildred “Mama” Chandler “and then with the rest of the girls at the 1935 picnic when he was a candidate for Governor of Kentucky. I guess it was the right thing to do because I got all the votes in Fancy Farm and won the election.” Albert Cash, an attendee that year recalled years later that Chandler was attired in a white suit and once again danced with all the ladies, noting, “when the dance was all over, he was sopping wet.”
As for political speech-making, Chandler is credited with being the first to a stand beneath an enormous oak tree to tell the crowd why he was the ideal candidate. The shade of the old oak tree was the chosen location until it was struck by lightning. The following year, then-Gov. Julian Carroll presented the parish with a plaque noting the tree’s role in Kentucky politics. It reads: “Lightning struck this 133-year old oak tree on April 15, 1974. The tree trunk remains a symbol of the years since 1880 where political speeches were made on the first Saturday of August at the Fancy Farm annual picnic. Some of America’s greatest statesmen have spoken under the shade of this great oak tree.” When former Gov. Louie B. Nunn spoke at the 1979 when he was once again a candidate for the office, he quipped about the Democratic candidate’s love for the tree, suggesting that it died from all the political rhetoric, adding that “too much fertilizer with kill anything.”
Nearly every governor of the state from Chandler to Bevin has spoken at the Fancy Farm Picnic with few exceptions. U.S. Senators have also been frequent speakers and even Alabama Gov. George C. Wallace was a speaker in 1975 as he was mounting his 1976 campaign for President.
Today, the Fancy Farm Picnic lives on, billed as the world’s largest picnic and still attracting political candidates and officials who speak before thousands of people cheering and jeering for their favorites. Members of the St. Jerome parish continue to prepare for the event weeks in advance awaiting the blessing of the meat before the cooking commences. While the event now includes activities on Friday prior to the barbeque and carnival extravaganza on Saturday; the political speeches begin promptly at 2 p.m.